But let’s back that up a little: books were still being analyzed and moved around once the nominations period ended, so let’s say that the reading period really got going in earnest around October 21--and let’s also say that people were re-reading passages and sorting favorites to prepare for committee meetings and such at the end of the month, so let’s call the end of it December 21. Essentially, two months to read as much as you could. For YA fantasy and science fiction, that was 147 eligible books, in the end, and really, a few more got read as they were evaluated for fit with the nominated category. I think we had one book that wasn’t read by at least one person, and that book wasn’t available to any of the judges. I’m not just talking not at the library; I’m talking not available in the judges’ regions.
While every panel is different, I think this post by Kelly Jensen gives you a pretty good idea of what it’s like to try to narrow down hundreds of books to five-ish.
And having been around the internet a bit, heh, and having been more than a lurker, heh, I know what happens next: armchair quarterbacking! Let me be the first to say a couple of things, then. No process is perfect. That’s just how it is. You set up general rules and let things go how they go. I think that everyone on my fabulous committee had some favorites that they would have liked to see become finalists, if only we had a few more slots--and I thought that the pool was strong enough that we could have had two or three times as many finalists. And: how can you compare something that has just a hint of fantasy or science fiction to a book with a richly detailed and fully developed world? Can you compare the conventions of fantasy to those of science fiction? What about books that seem to cross genres? Where does magical realism go? Ooh, what about this cool book that had a terrible cover and miserable cover blurb and bad design that’s hiding an awesome story?
In the end, it’s down to gut feeling. To holding two books side by side and asking tough questions about structure and appeal and voice and characterization, and then facing the fact that your committee isn’t going to be in complete agreement...on anything, maybe. To arguing for your favorites and accepting that others have favorites too. I’m thrilled to have worked with the YA fantasy and science fiction first round panelists for this year, though. I really enjoyed the lively discussion about all of the books, and it certainly helped me to know that even when I was the only one who loved, loved, loved a certain book, the other panelists understood where I was coming from.
Speaking of nominations, two of my nominations became finalists. The first, The Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes, I nominated in MG fiction, and it was moved to MG fantasy and science fiction. I came across a promo postcard for this book at...ALA midwinter, maybe? BEA? ...and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. The second, Brain Jack by Brian Falkner, was--I will now confess--a book I hadn’t even read yet, but when I was looking at the YA fantasy and science fiction nominees, all of the books I had read that I wanted to nominate had been nominated, and I wanted to expand the science fiction side of the nominations.
Three other nominations didn’t become finalists, but I’d like to highlight them for you anyway. First, Subway by Christoph Niemann is a picture book that doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen on the shelves in a long time. I’ve never been on the subway, but the fantastic illustrations transported me there. (Fiction picture book honorable mentions: Too Purpley by Jean Reidy and Push Button by Aliki, both of which I gave as presents this year.) Next, Mitali Perkins’s Bamboo People is just a must-read; if you think that YA fiction can’t be complicated and sophisticated and timely, you should take a look at this contemporary novel set amid war in Burma. Finally, I got to visit the publisher and look at graphic novel Trickster, edited by Matthew Dembicki, and see the many iterations of the cover art and hear how Fulcrum Publishing helped bring together 21 American Indian authors to write the tales.
So, the YA fantasy and science fiction finalists! The first round committee wrote a blurb for each book, which you can read here.
And I’ll give you three words for each:
1. Brain Jack: Hackers get hacked.
2. The Wager: Grimy Don Giovanni.
3. Rot and Ruin: Swordslingers versus zombies.
4. Plain Kate: Help! Lost shadow.
5. Pod: Aliens haaaaaate you.
6. Ship Breaker: Ecopocalyptic corporations=evil.
7. Guardian of the Dead: Paranormal New Zealand.
How I read the nominated books:
Usually, except for when I get advance copies of some sort, I do pretty careful screening of the books I read, because nearly everything I read, I buy. (Libraries aren’t really an option for me at present, and that’s a long, boring story.)
For the Cybils, I started each book the same way. First, I looked at the cover. I looked for a blurb on the back, and then took a quick look at flap copy, including the author’s bio. My eyes skim over recommendations, unless it’s an author whose recommendations I respect very much, and even then, that sentence (or half-sentence!) doesn’t mean much to me. I look at the colophon and copyright page information to get a sense of how this book was produced; I think that the publishing industry, on the whole, doesn’t capitalize on the idea of imprints for marketing to the casual reader (the big exception for me being Harlequin, despite the fact that I can never remember which lines I like and which I don’t). I glance at the dedication, if there is one, and any other notes at the beginning of the book (and I usually find that I’d rather have these as a paragraph or two at the end, because the “I wrote this for my awesome cat/cousin/hometown” is less important to me than the result).
But as much as all of the above items can get me excited--or not--about a book, they’re not make or break. Instead, it’s the first sentence, paragraph, page. I see text in chunks, so a first sentence that’s just okay might redeem itself in the first paragraph. On the other hand, a disastrous first sentence, whether that means a mess grammatically or a humdinger that’s exciting but not really related to the story, well, that’s very telling about what’s going to come next.
I knew on page one if I was going to read a book past page 50. I think I was wrong twice in 118 books, and that wrong guess was overturned before page 5 by good writing, a compelling storyline, or an interesting voice or character.
Someone reading this is probably saying hey, you’re not giving these books a chance! You need to hang in there, because it doesn’t get good until... But here’s the thing. A couple of things. First, the Cybils process ensures that books get read to (at least) page 50. For a lot of books, that was a quarter or more of the story. Second, sure, there will be peaks and valleys in a story, parts of it that won’t be as strong or enjoyable, but I’d ask this: How much of a book should a reader expect to be sub-par? Should they pay for a book that doesn’t get good until the second half? (Would you stay for the second half of a movie that was terrible? Would you feel like you got your money’s worth buying an entire album, only to find out that there was only one good song on it?) That said, a fireworks beginning still needs a strong story the rest of the way through!
So that brings me to where some, maybe a lot, of books didn’t work out. Or, to look at things from the positive side, where they did work. This observance list isn’t just about the Cybils, by the way--I don’t want anybody cringing and going oh, that’s my book. It really, seriously isn’t. I read 160-odd books this past year, and it’s easy to see trends there. Also, for every clichéd scene, there’s probably someone out there doing it in a fresh way. Right now. Here’s what I loved to see:
1. The spool unwound.
There isn’t one perfect plot, and there isn’t a rule that things should happen in some way that neatly segments scenes and their emotional impact. For me, though, reading a good book was like having a spool of thread unwinding before me. Heck, let’s call me a cat with a ball of yarn; as I turned pages, the yarn ball was always unwinding at the length of an outstretched paw. I don’t know what to say about those books that had very little plot, except that it takes some real talent to keep a story going without one.
Bonus points: if you introduced your fantasy or science fiction-y premise in a way that felt fresh. I recognize, as I mentioned earlier, that there are only so many ways to say “Yer a wizard, ‘Arry.”
Points off: if every time there’s some real action, it ends in “and then everything went black.” You don’t know how many people fainted, or fell down into darkness. I am concerned that at least 50% of YA fantasy and science fiction protagonists have been suffering from concussions.
2. And it unwound.
I’m curious and I want the spool to move. I should know by the time I get to page, oh, let’s say somewhere around 25-30, exactly why I’m going to keep reading a book. Maybe there’s some compelling question that the character is facing--or maybe the book is approaching an everyday question in a compelling way. Maybe the world-building is like a magnet. Maybe there’s something about the writing, the voice, the structure that speaks to me. And now that I’m trapped, I keep coming to turning points, where the story must choose a path; now I want to know what’s down that path.
Bonus points: The best books I read had a coordinated series of stakes. They were connected; they weren’t emotional or dangerous just to make the book exciting.
Points off: I turned a page--often well after page 100--and said oh, well, we finally got to the point of the book. Points off also for 50-100 pages of teenagers just being teenagers: talking on the phone (every word faithfully transcribed), going to school, waking up, checking themselves out in the mirror, and once in a while noticing that something odd was happening.
3. I cared about your character.
Characters don’t have to be likeable, no matter what anybody says. It’s entirely possible for me to dislike a character and care about them all the same, to want to know what happens to them. I’ll stick with a character if they feel like a whole person--if even if it’s not in the story, I know that they have likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, kindnesses and cruelties. And I appreciated the whole person in particular when it was important to the story that the character be witty, or smart, or snobby, or whatever trendy characterization could have made your character feel like a poorly-sewn sockpuppet.
Bonus points: your character was complicated but believable, particularly in a way beyond “I’m a stereotypically whiny teenager”--because I don’t really believe in that characterization (and though that person exists in real life, it’s not usually a full-time personality).
Points off: your character was a grown-up in a kid costume, particularly coupled with a message, issue, or political motive. I think agenda books don’t give readers enough credit for figuring it out on their own.
4. You gave me the benefit of the doubt.
You explained what I needed to know about your fantasy world, your speculative setting, or your scientific imagining. You also gave me what I needed to know at just the right time, without telling--unless telling was right for the story. At the same time, you let me figure it out. Best of all, you didn’t treat me like I was incapable of understanding; you weren’t condescending.
Bonus points: for just enough of the world threaded through the narrative.
Points off: infodump, particularly in those critical first fifty pages.
5. There was a satisfying beginning and ending. And middle. I’m not asking for much, am I.
This doesn’t mean that there was a happy ending, or an ending I liked. It’s not enough for the book to just run out of pages, and a book that does nothing but serve as setup for another book can be very disappointing. Even if threads are left open, my favorites gave me a sense of closure.
Bonus points: for starting the story where it really should start and providing backstory if and when needed. Extra bonus for concluding in a strong way. (There were rare exceptions, but most of the time, the prologues and epilogues I saw could have been integrated into other chapters or excised entirely.)
Points off: for making book one just the first act, so I really got half a story.
If you’re going to have a book eligible for the Cybils next year, which means published between October 16, 2010, and October 15, 2011, hurrah! I hope someone nominates it for you, but if they don’t and you don’t like to toot your own horn, grab any human being and ask them to nominate you. (If you do like to toot your own horn, be aware that most bloggers have stats tools that mark you as the author of that anonymous note when you show up to comment on reviews.) Give your publisher and publicist a heads up; they’ll be contacted and asked for review copies. I’d recommend that publishers provide copies as soon as possible, if they’re going to do so. It’s really hard to discuss a book that you haven’t been able to acquire, and I am really sad about the books that are showing up after the finalists have been announced. (Electronic copies are fine--I didn’t have an e-reader but I barreled through a lot of books on a cell phone.) I read a lot of books I owned and borrowed from friends (other panelists were heavy library users), as well as advance copies that I’ve been hoarding (I like them almost as much as signed or collector editions!), but I certainly couldn’t have read so many books, or so widely, without publisher support. So, again, thank you to those publishers who went out of their way to support their nominated authors--I know that it’s not free to send review copies, and I know that just because it’s an electronic edition, that doesn’t mean that a book is magically cheaper.
Finally, I’m going to skim down the nominees and point out cool features, as I know some folks are looking for books with particular features for challenges, lists, personal enjoyment, and curricula. I know I will miss some features, especially for those nominated books I didn’t read and for those I know only by reputation (the mentions below don’t necessarily reflect my reads), and I am sorry for any mistakes or omissions; if you see a nominated book that I should add to a category, leave me a comment and I’ll add it to my list. I’m sure I will forget some books. And I’m sure I’ll get something wrong, so please do your own checking. Categories in no particular order, but books alphabetically, more or less:
Books set all or in part in Washington state (I guess I get to thank Twilight for that): The Candidates (Delcroix Academy, Book 1), The Clearing, Epitaph Road, Pod, honorable mention for being set in N. Oregon is Thirteen Days to Midnight
Books highlighting brothers: Bruiser, The Demon’s Covenant, Rot and Ruin
Books highlighting sisters: Before I Fall, Mockingjay, Toads and Diamonds, Wish
Books with dragons: Dragons of Darkness, Dragons of Noor, Firelight, Voices of Dragons
Books with aliens and questions about whether aliens are something you’d actually want to contact: Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences, I Am Number Four, Pod, Living Hell
Books...in...spaaaaaaace: Black Hole Sun, Inside Out, Living Hell
Books with fiendishly immoral superheroes: The Rise of Renegade X
With dead or about to be dead or maybe dead people: Beautiful Dead: Arizona, Before I Fall, Chasers, The Deathday Letter, Chasing Brooklyn, The Clearing, The Eternal Ones, Everwild, Picture the Dead, Plain Kate, Prince of Mist, anything with zombies
With an environmental theme: Carbon Diaries 2017, Ship Breaker
With boats or sailing: Everlasting
With vampires: Cat the Vamp, Fat Vampire, Solace and Grief, Spirit Bound (Vampire Academy, Book 5), Try Me
Funny: Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences, Cloaked in Red, The Deathday Letter, Fat Vampire, The Rise of Renegade X
With werewolves: Claire de Lune, Linger, Raised by Wolves
With zombies: Chasers, The Enemy, Rot and Ruin, Zombies vs. Unicorns
With killer unicons: Ascendant, Zombies vs. Unicorns
With all manner of monstrosities, in groups and/or unusual, or even unique among recent releases: Bleeding Violet, Bruiser, Draw the Dark, Living Hell, Monster High, My Soul to Save, Stork
With a talking cat that appeals to people who don’t like talking cats: Plain Kate
Technology focus: Brain Jack, Girl Parts, The Unidentified
In verse: Chasing Brooklyn
With some Shakespeare: Darklight, Freaksville, When Rose Wakes
Fairy tale-influenced (as opposed to including fairies): Cloaked in Red, Plain Kate, Sisters Red, Toads and Diamonds, The White Cat (bet you didn’t know that last one!)
People on the wrong side of the law: Starcrossed, The White Cat
Fantasy without the paranormal: Brightly Woven, The Exiled Queen, Green Witch, I Shall Wear Midnight, The King Commands, Mistwood, Plain Kate, Starcrossed, Toads and Diamonds, Wildwing
Just plain different: Bleeding Violet, Bruiser, The White Cat
With particular focus on school setting: Before I Fall, The Candidates (Delcroix Academy, Book 1), Hex Hall, Spirit Bound (Vampire Academy, Book 5)
With a scene at Comic-Con: Fat Vampire
Arthurian-influenced: Song of the Sword (Book 1 of the Shards of Excalibur)
Including characters of color in important roles (I could use some more details and more specific information for some of these, if you know it): Alien Invasion and Other Consequences, black secondary character; Bleeding Violet, black female main character and secondary character; The Deathday Letter, black best friend; Guardian of the Dead, Maori best friend; Magic Under Glass, undefined, but perhaps SE Asian female main character; The Mermaid’s Mirror, and I could use a reminder, I think had an Asian male love interest, perhaps Hawaiian?; The Scorch Trials, several important secondary characters, black and Asian; Ship Breaker, protagonist and secondary characters are Hispanic, black, and SE Asian; Toads and Diamonds, all characters Indian; Rot and Ruin, protagonist half-Japanese, brother is Japanese
Including gay characters: Ascendant, secondary female characters; The Deathday Letter, secondary male character; Zombies vs. Unicorns, main male characters in a story
Ass-kicking girls: Ascendant, Bleeding Violet, Dark Goddess, Mistwood, Mockingjay, Paranormalcy, Rot and Ruin
What have I missed?
Coming up later this week: an interview with Lou Aronica, and a review of his new book, Blue, as well as the return of the giveaway